The Right & Defending Slave Reparations | Charles Amos

When it comes to the issue of reparations many on the Right dismiss the idea immediately. The standard response to the issue trundles along incredibly predictable tracks. The individual condemns the slave trade as evil, mentions the British got rid of it, and then says that the current generation cannot be held accountable for the injustices of the past. The Rightist then ceases to give any further thought to the issue.

The preceding response represents a huge misapplication of the principles which many on the Right hold. Contrary to their received wisdom, a consistent application of a defence of property necessarily leads one to supporting reparations. The following lays out a theoretical explanation as to why, and to a limited extent, how such payments should be made. The essence of the theory is simple and intuitive: Property that is stolen should be returned to its rightful owner.

[E]very man has a property in his own person. This nobody has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his.

John Locke

When an individual enslaves another man he is forcefully making him subject to his will. The slave’s labour is being stolen. The profits that are made from working him are illegitimate; the slave owners’ livelihood is immoral. However, provided the individual lives in a State where the force of law is on their side such injustice shall go unpunished. They shall accumulate property on the backs of slaves and live a life of luxury as a result.

Although the slave owners of the 18th Century are dead and gone and have escaped punishment, in many cases ‘their’ property remains with us to this day. If a Liverpudlian slave trader in the 18th Century bought a house using the profits from his immoral enterprise there is a reasonable chance that such a property still exists today. There is also the distinct possibility that the slaves that he transported and sold have living decadents within America today.

Any reasonable application of justice requires that the property in Liverpool is returned to its rightful owners in America, the descendants of slaves. The property in Liverpool was acquired or built with ill gotten funds. Men cannot be owned and hence cannot be sold. The profits made on the slaves’ sale are therefore fraudulent, and rightly belong to the legitimate owner of the property i.e. the slave. The slave’s descendants can therefore make a legitimate claim on the slave owner’s fraudulent profits which are now embodied in a property in Liverpool.

Many on the Right will howl at the prospect of such a redistribution of property, but such an action fails to see it is in fact the only true way to defend property. Take the following example: the case of a stolen watch. A steals a watch from 1, A then wills the stolen watch to his son B, B then wills the watch to his son C, and then C wills it to his son D. Over this 200 year period 1 (who has died) produced eight grandchildren, 8,9,10,11,12,13,14 and 15. For simplicity imagine all their parents are dead and that each parent willed 50% of their wealth to each child (each having two children). The result of this thought experiment suggests that any re-discovered wealth belonging to 1 should go to directly to 8,9,10,11,12,13,14 and 15  in one eighth proportions. Imagine now that clear and un-debateable evidence is raised by a historian to implicate A with stealing 1’s watch.

Further to this imagine that via a record of wills that the historian has managed to identify the watch’s current owner as D. D is of course not responsible for the theft of the watch and has in no way behaved immorally. Nonetheless, the watch is still stolen property which belongs to 1’s descendants, 8,9,10,11,12,13,14 and 15. To restore justice the watch should be taken from D and sold with the money being divided between 1’s descendants 8,9,10,11,12,13,14 and 15.

If the watch should be returned to its legitimate owners why should the Liverpudlian property not be returned to its legitimate owners i.e. the slaves’ descendants? The suggestion that it is a long time ago is no warrant for impeding justice. At what point in the watch example does the stolen property suddenly become legitimate and belong to one of the sons? The answer is at no point; it is still a stolen watch and should be returned to its proper owner. Equally well the Liverpudlian property, the embodiment of profiting from slavery, does not become legitimate simply because it is passed on or sold. It is still an ill gotten property funded by stealing the lives of slaves. It should be returned to its legitimate owners. If the slave owner fraudulently sold the house to an innocent buyer, it must still be returned to the slave’s descendants. The preceding is nothing but a consistent application of Nozick’s entitlement theory of justice. 

At this point many on the Right will again object and attempt a reductio ad adsurdum argument against the proponent of reparations. They will say that to apply the theory consistently would involve having to go back to the beginning of time going through every generation to ensure no injustice has been committed. At this point many supine supporters of reparations will fold. They should not, for the consistent libertarian simply has to accept such an extreme, no rejection is necessary. Nor must such acceptance come with the ‘impracticality’ that conservatives suggest.

On a purely theoretical level the conservative must concede that justice requires property to be redistributed to its legitimate owners. Some may do just that, however almost all go onto say that it would be totally impractical to implement. A number probably oppose such an idea for the selfish reason of not wanting to loss ‘their’ own property to such redistribution.

No doubt there would be high administrative costs to determining which current wealth belongs to the descendents of slaves in America, and the frustration felt by current generations, who have done nothing wrong, will be great. Nonetheless justice demands that such action must be taken.

Given that British ships transported some 3 million slaves across the Atlantic from 1640 to 1807 it stands to reason that even if a fraction of those slaves survived and were to have children mass wealth redistribution must occur today. Unfortunately for justice this is not practically the case. For unlike those on the Left who would impose greater taxation on the current generation to fund welfare programmes for poor Black populations, redistribution must occur on an individual to individual basis.

However, current property owners must still be assumed to be the legitimate owners; it is the slaves’ descendants who must prove that the property is rightly theirs.  Since this process for many will be prohibitively expensive the extent of the wealth redistribution shall be severely limited. Conservative concern on this front should therefore be much reduced, and hence objections to reparation on their own grounds of ‘practicality’ (or selfishness) should be withdrawn.

The passage of time since the early 19th Century has fortunately seen the horrors of slavery slowly pass into obscurity. Nonetheless, the results of such injustice remain with us to this today, and contrary to the Right the issue can still be addressed. To extent that the descendents of slaves can prove legitimate title in British property today it should be theirs, no matter what the consequences for the resident population. Justice must be done.

Photo by oboler on Flickr.

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